Winchester has that “based on actual events” klaxon at the start. This usually means they will play fast and loose with facts, but while there is a good deal of artistic licence in this movie, it perhaps suffers from being too bound to the truth. It relates the account of Sarah Winchester, heir of the gun company, who is required to have a mental health assessment following the death of her husband & child. This is conducted by the troubled Dr Price who initially seems a poor choice for this task, given his own addictions. But we discover that he has been chosen by Helen Mirren’s grieving widow because he was declared dead for three minutes. He therefore has a bridge to the other world.
Sarah keeps a record of all the people killed by the Winchester rifle and spends her considerable fortune continually building, knocking down, and expanding the seven story mansion. She attempts to recreate the rooms in which the victims of her family’s technology died, and by this method either give them peace, or for the more troubled ones, lock them away safely. This much seems to be (given a quick bit of research), largely true, and the ramshackle mansion remains a popular tourist destination.
This is, in itself, a fascinating story. But the movie seeks to be both a biographical account, and a gothic horror, and fails to satisfy either. If it had taken the base story and instead opted for an “inspired by” the Spierig brothers might have given themselves greater licence for a brooding, oppressive horror, with the house itself given a more central role, like the original version of the Haunting. Or they could have decided to focus more tightly on the autobiographical aspect and left the audience wondering whether the ghosts were real or not, as with The Turn of the Screw, say. Instead we get a fairly straightforward ‘rid the house of the evil ghost’ account.
It’s a shame as it’s quite an interesting idea but not enough of a horror film, historical biography or allegory. There is something to be explored also about the responsibility of inventors of technology that maybe Silicon Valley tech-bros could learn from in Winchester’s hope for redemption. And there are the obvious musings on gun violence which are touched upon but never really mined adequately. Although it ultimately has little to scare the horror film fan it is a worthwhile story to bring to the screen, but it would have been a more intriguing movie in the hands of someone steeped in gothic folklore however, such as Del Toro.